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Delhi's Commonwealth Games refugees


'Delhi Games' by Chris JohnstonI remember my first taxi ride in India: no kidding, I expected to die. I tipped the taxi driver an extraordinary amount in sheer relief and acknowledgment of the great risk that he too had made to drive me about.

I remember taking the same, late-night journey from Indira Ghandi International four years later. The same suicidal speed away from the airport towards town. Reluctant slowing to a stop at lights.

A tapping at the taxi window. The driver instinctively edging the car forward in a feeble gesture of shelter for his international guest. The dirty boy outside the window motioning to his hungry stomach. 'Please, one Rupee. One Rupee.' A fumbling through my bag. His hands cold, dry and unwashed.

I remember the familiar sights and smells of New Delhi unravelling like a map. Shadowy figures huddled in gray blankets; two men with broken sandals and a gas bottle on a pushbike; another with a long stick in place of a leg.

But just as I thought we were nearing the end of our journey and would, at any moment, be greeted by old familiar landmarks, the landscape started changing. The late night omelette-makers and street boys and crinkled blankets that could be corpses began to thin, and roads seem broader, starker. Large flyovers made of concrete slabs spiralled overhead, the alcoves of shelter they created eerily empty.

The smell of hot bitumen asserted itself in the chilled winter air as we passed a team of late night road workers. A whole family of saried women, nimble men and woollen-hatted children sifting gravel and carrying piles of stones on their heads. Their shelter, two tents made entirely of black plastic sheeting, cold and unlit.

The driver, seeing the direction of my gaze, nodded towards the ghostly work party and explained: 'Delhi Games.'

'Delhi Games' became a constant refrain thoughout those three months in late 2009. When we were careering through the sparklingly hushed underground veins of Delhi's Metro, or standing perplexed, above ground trying to find familiar street stalls amid the Jenga set of new roads.

We read out aloud the amusing 'etiquette lessons' printed in the daily Hindustan Times, schooling Delhites on not spitting in public during the Games and reports of manners training for the police force.

Most poignantly, 'Delhi Games' was the refrain spoken at the sight of babies dosed up on phernargan and asleep in bundles on the side of the road while their mothers, gaunt with spindly limbs, lugged baskets of bricks on their heads and fathers dangled several storeys above with cloth rag caps and cans of paint.

'Economic migrants' was the official term, but to my local friends who rolled their eyes in pity and disdain they were ignorant villagers. Speakers of foreign dialects and keepers of strange customs. Strangers in an increasingly strange land.

But it wasn't these skinny troupes of unskilled workers or the constant smell of moist concrete and sawdust that spoke most strongly of the Games. Rather it was the places and people, who in the name of the Games, were now absent. Those who had always been a part of Delhi, but would not be a part of the Games.

The samosa man with his shallow fryer propped between two bricks. The masala soda wallaha who pushed his cart of soft drinks in the pelting sun and cracked ice with the back of a knife. The little girl with polio who wore indigo ruffles and sold wilted roses at the junction. The narrow strip of houses, shuffled like a deck of cards along a caustic smelling stream. All simply no longer there.

Now back home in Australia, the New New Delhi, in its completed form, materialises before my eyes. Sweeping news shots take in the wide lawns and tranquil row boats of India Gate. Sports commentators talk over images of dazzling Bollywood dancers, magnolia garlands and friendly trinket sellers. And school children in their pleated uniforms, knee high socks and oiled hair wave so excitedly that one can't help but smile back at them.

It's only a matter of time before the gold medal tally will creep up to the tune of 'Advance Australia Fair' and gossip of the victories and scandals of athletes' personal lives will engulf family banter and office small talk. In Australia's inevitable wins, let's not forget the people who have made these Games possible, the risks they have taken and all that they have lost.

Cara MunroCara Munro is a registered nurse who has been inspired by communities in Malaysia, West End, India, Arnhem Land and the wonderfully multicultural Footscray in Melbourne, where she is now a resident. She is a contributing author to Learnings: Lessons We Are Learning About Living Together.

Topic tags: Cara Munro, Delhi Games, economic migrants



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Existing comments

This is undoubtedly the most powerful and noteworthy article I have read about the 'Delhi Games'.

Thank you for opening my eyes to the poorest people of India who unfortunately will receive little benefit or publicity from the Commonwealth Games.

I'm reminded of Jesus' words about the least in this world being considered the greatest in the kingdom of God.

robert van zetten | 04 October 2010  

Thank you Cara for noticing and appreciating those will inherit the 'kingdom of heaven'

Ray O'Donoghue | 04 October 2010  

Thank you Cara. This reminds me of my visit to Delhi in 1964, but also the contrast of Bombay, where I encountered extreme poverty. The wealth of modern India would hardly have eased the burden and extreme living conditions of the majority of Indians who face a bleak future.

Peter M Budgewoi NSW | 04 October 2010  

To write with compassion is a wonderful gift. I am reminded of Noor's ambiguous kitchen which fired my imagination with its compassionate imagery.
Thank you.

Cecily McNeill | 05 October 2010  

This is a beautiful, sensitive, moving piece. Much better than anything else I've read on the Delhi Games. Well done.

Greg Foyster | 06 October 2010  

Thank you Cara for a poignant statement of the reality of the Dehli games for so many. We can only hope that somehow, some improvement in future daytoday life comes for some of these people, especially the children.

Judith McEniery | 08 October 2010  

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